Quit Looking for Answers. Start Managing Your Career with Better Questions


One thing I've noticed in my 15+ years of helping people figure out what they want to be when they grow up is how uncomfortable we are with questions. Despite the fact that the questions we ask inevitably shape the results and opportunities we find, we are so focused on answers, we don't pay attention to asking the right questions. Nor do we pay attention to how our questions can help us frame new opportunities. 

I'm a big believer in managing your career with questions. I think it is by grappling with our questions that we come to true insight and clarity about our journey. But we need to get better at asking powerful questions and make questioning a regular career habit. 

What is a Powerful Question?

The Art of Powerful Questions says that a powerful question:

  • Generates curiosity in the listener.
  • Stimulates reflective conversation.
  • Is thought-provoking.
  • Surfaces underlying assumptions.
  • Invites creativity and new possibilities.
  • Generates energy and forward movement.
  • Channels attention and focuses inquiry.
  • Touches a deep meaning
  • Evokes more questions. 

For me, I know when I've hit on the "right" question when I feel an urgency to explore and answer it OR when I feel huge resistance about dealing with it. Often that resistance is a sign that I REALLY need to deal with that particular question!

If the question feels "dead"--if I get a "been there, done that" response to the question, then I know I haven't found a question that's really powerful for me. I need to keep exploring and tinkering until I get it right. 

Some Resources for Exploring Questions and Your Career

If you're looking for some help in getting started with using questions for career management and exploration, check out some of these resources: 

  • The Art of Powerful Questions--written for the World Cafe community, this is an excellent guide to developing your own powerful questions. Hint: ask more "why," "how" and "what" questions.
  • The Question Log--keep track of your questions and look for trends and themes. 

Another techniqe to try is what Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregerson, in their recent Harvard Business Review article Find a Job Using Disruptive Innovation , call "questionstorming": 

Take four minutes a day to write down nothing but questions about your job search. Doing this consistently for thirty days will take you down new paths as your questions change and your patterns of action follow. For example, an executive in his mid-thirties and in a career transition began by asking "How can I make a bucket of money?" Over time, that question changed to "What will make me happy for the long term?" Which then changed to "How do I create something for the long term?" As a result, he's moved into different kinds of job interviews, landing one with a big multinational company that otherwise would never have happened had he not changed his question.

Questionstorming can be combined with the Question Log to give you some really powerful insights. 

Finally, many of the people I work with have had great success in using visuals to explore their career questions. It's the idea behind my Career Clarity Image sessions, where you can work with up 3 big questions--which usually leads to more and deeper questions. And ultimately some clarity. 

Questioning is a Fundamental Career Management Skill

I'm increasingly finding that developing your skills in the art of the question is one of the best investments in your career you can make. Not only do powerful questions help you gain clarity about your own career, the ability to ask and use powerful questions in other facets of your professional life is a cornerstone for success.  Focusing on answers is easy in the age of Google. It's the questions that really make the difference. 

Some Thoughts on "Managing People"

'Pest Control' by T.Wat

I've been thinking lately about our focus on "managing" people. I spend a lot of time with front-line supervisors in various capacities and they are obssessed with how to control people's behavior.

The discussions are of two basic types--How do you get staff to do the things you want them to do? How do you STOP staff from doing things you DON'T want them to do? There are variations, of course, but only in the details. Mostly we are talking about carrots and sticks and, for me at least, the conversations devolve into a sort of "how do we herd the cats?" kind of thing. It's animal husbandry, not working with people. 

There's a lot of frustration in these conversations--on both sides. The supervisors are frustrated that they can't control people's actions. And I'm frustrated that they are so focused on control. 

Here's the thing. Anytime we are focused on "managing" something, we are really talking about controlling it.  We want to control the outcome AND how people get there. We often want to control people's reactions, too. Not only should they do what we want them to do, they should like it, no matter how ridiculous the expectation. 

But no one likes to feel controlled. I think it's something innately human. The reason we talk about "the Terrible Twos" is because even children resist our attempts to control their behavior. Children resist by kicking and screaming. Adults tend to resist in less obvious, more passive/aggressive ways. But they are still resisting. 

This is why. Control is about power. When we "manage" people, we are exerting our power over them, but pretending we are not. People know this. They are not stupid. They know they are being manipulated and they don't like it. 

There was a time when employees were more willing to accept this kind of arrangement, when they felt like they got something from the deal--"If I submit to your "management" of me, in return I will receive a paycheck and some meaningful guarantee of ongoing employment." But that contract is broken now. It becomes harder to submit to control when you know that it's really a form of servitude, not a choice you've made to exchange your independence for a paycheck.

I think that people are becoming harder to "manage," not because they are spoiled or entitled (as I've heard many managers say), but because on some fundamental level, they know that they are getting the raw end of this deal and they aren't happy about it. Employees are afraid to resist in more overt ways (they still, at least, want that paycheck), but deep down they know that the contract has been irrevocably altered and they are not interested in such one-sided exchanges. 

 How to get out of this impasse? 

I think that we must first understand and accept that "management" is another word for "control." While I can control inanimate objects--financial and physical resources--I can't control people. I can try, but in the end I won't get what I want. And I'll exhaust myself in the process. 

We have to give up the notion of control and accept that we live in a world where many things are uncontrollable--especially those things that have to do with other people.  We can become resilient and able to deal with what life throws at us, but we cannot control how and when the ball comes over the plate. To believe otherwise is to live in a world of illusion. 

To work effectively with people, we need to take a different approach. We cannot manage them, but we can create space for them to do their own work. We can help them tap into their own innate motivation by helping them find autonomy, mastery and purpose in the work that they do. 

I also think that we have to bring humanity back to work, understanding and accepting that we are working with PEOPLE, not machines and that people have feelings and baggage that they can't just check at the door.

We don't want emotions at work, because they are messy and sticky and, well, uncontrollable. So we tell people to be "professional," which really means, "Keep your emotions to yourself, please, because I already feel like the world is uncontrollable so the last thing I need is you adding to that burden." But what we create, then, is a culture of repression and when we repress our emotions, they are going to come out somewhere, usually where we least want that to happen. 

Ultimately, I think that this post is a plea for us to remember that we are working with people, that our institutions (including our workplaces) should exist to serve us, not the other way around. We want work to be this antiseptic, controllable place, devoid of human messiness. But it is not. It is a reflection of our very human selves that we should embrace, not resist. 

What bothers me most about these issues of control is that they divide us from one another, creating an "us vs. them" culture. It's sad. And also unnecessary. 

What I think is this: If we worked harder to understand and embrace our humanity at work, we might find that our concerns about control evaporated. If we worked harder at understanding and working with each other as human beings, not machines, we might find that we're all  in this together. 

Where are the Meaningful Conversations at Work?


This weekend, I went on a retreat with 10 other women to reflect on our experiences in 2011 and plan for what we wanted to do in 2012. It was a fabulous experience that I'll be writing more about. 

One of the most eye-opening realizations I had in our weekend away was the profound LACK of meaningful conversations at work and in our personal lives.

Sure, we're talking all the time about transactions and meetings and getting work done. But we aren't talking about the meat underneath, the stuff that is really bothering people or that inspires people--the stuff that makes us tick. What became clear to me in our weekend away was that there is a HUNGER for this kind of conversation in our work and personal lives. 

In a work context, it's easy to say that there isn't time or that work isn't the place for this kind of talk. But I would argue that work is exactly the place right now where we need to be having deeper discussions.  It is the lack of meaningful conversation that is draining us of our creativity and commitment. 

According to a recent Gallup Poll, the majority of US workers are disengaged from their work--that is, 2/3 of American workers are not "involved in and enthusiastic about their work and contributing to their organizations in a positive manner." I would argue that part of the reason for this disengagement is because we are not talking about the deeper, more systemic issues that are going on in the workplace and what we can do about them. We spend our days talking about the work, but do nothing to really get at what's going on underneath that leads to those undercurrents of tension, dissatisfaction and anxiety. 

Here's a sampling of some of the things we discussed during our retreat:

  • There's a sense that workers are "disposable"--we can put our heart and soul into the work that we do, and it can still result in a pink slip at the end of the day. That leaves people wondering if it's worth it to do anything other than put in their time. 
  • So many of us are being under-utilized or mis-utilized at work. We have some amazing gifts and talents, but instead of work playing to our strengths, in many cases we are shuttled from one project to another as though we are simply interchangeable cogs in a machine, rather than human beings with real passions and strengths.  This is demoralizing and de-humanizing. And let's not lie to ourselves. It has an impact. 
  • The employment contract is starting to feel extremely one-sided. We are expected to give our all, putting in the long hours and demonstrating the "commitment" to our work. Many of us sacrifice family, friends and personal renewal to keep those commitments. But we don't see the same commitment from employers, who remind us that "employment at will," means we can be let go at any time.  I don't belive that this is sustainable in the long-term. We are already paying the price in terms of disengagement, which costs companies billions. 
  •  Much as we don't want to admit it, gender issues still impact the workplace. We may have curbed the most virulent forms of sexual harassment, but the more subtle influences of patriarchy are still alive and well, influencing many of our beliefs about the workplace and "acceptable" forms of behavior there. This is a trap and a problem for both men AND women. 

What came through loud and clear for me is that for many people, it's not safe to have deep conversations about issues like this at work. Yet it is these unspoken issues that are having a profound influence on how we engage with our work and on our relationships with colleagues. 

One thing I know is this--when we don't address the elephant in the room, he keeps getting bigger and bigger. We're forced to move furniture and shrink up against the walls in order to make room for him.  Pretty soon there's little room to even breathe. But if we started acknowledging and discussing what was going on, we could ease him out, making space for people again. 

So what meaningful conversations are you NOT having at work? And what can you do about it? 


Want a chance to have some more meaningful conversations about work? We'll be talking about meaty stuff in Career Clarity Camp, starting January 9. Info on the Camp and the sign-up form are here

Professional Development Tool: The First Hour


What I do first thing in the morning tends to set the tone for the rest of my day. Starting with my email inbox inevitably sets me up for a day of reacting to other people's agendas and unproductive "multi-tasking." When I begin my day with an hour spent on a high-impact project, though, things tend to flow more smoothly. I accomplish more and feel that sense of "flow" more frequently. I also am happier and more energetic. 

As Ali Luke from Pick The Brain points out:

Hour One matters because it sets the tone for what’s to come. If you start off well, it’s relatively easy to keep going: you feel motivated by what you’ve achieved, so you carry on doing great work.

Conversely, if you spend the first hour of your day bogged down in trivia or rushing to catch up, you may well find that you get more and more behind. The day rushes on – or drags – and, at the end of it, you don’t feel much sense of satisfaction.

Getting the first hour right will set you up for success – and keep you on track towards your goals.

Here's a 30-Day Experiment for you. Instead of checking your email first thing in the morning, try using the first hour of your day to focus on some aspect of your professional development. You can use it to:

  • Build your professional network. Doing a favor for someone, thanking them for their work or writing a recommendation for someone on LinkedIn can be great ways to start the day. 
  • Participate in an online course or community discussion.

Putting your professional development at the start of your day will ensure that you devote time and energy to it. It will also set you up for learning throughout the remainder of your day. 

What do you do during the first hour of your day?


Want priority registration for events, special discounts and other goodies? Then sign up for The Bamboo Project newsletter!

If you sign up before January, 2012, you'll get my free "Looking Back/Looking Ahead" activities. Each day for 15 days, you'll receive an email with a specific question that can help you reflect on what you've learned in 2011 and get you started planning for 2012. It's a great way to jumpstart your career for the New Year!


Sign up for Career Clarity Camp--If You're Ready to Get Clear


I'm excited to announce that I'll be running a month-long Online Career Clarity Camp from October 10--November 7, 2011.  

Who Should Participate? 

I put this camp together for people who are ready to:

  • Move from Career Certainty to Career Clarity--For people who recognize that there is no certainty when it comes to our careers, so we have to gain clarity about ourselves and our opportunities in order to embrace uncertainty. 
  • Become the Start-up of You, whether that means working for themselves or building their start-up skills and mentality for work in a "what have you done for me lately?" economy. 

What's Going to Happen in this Camp?

I'm going to warn you up front that this will be pretty intense. During the camp we're going to be engaging in a really deliberate cycle of Action/Reflection. You won't be able to just sit back and read. You'll need to be ready do some work. But I promise it will be fun and interesting. 

Each week of the camp will be arranged around a theme:

  • Week 1--EXPLORE--Dreaming Possible Selves:  In the first week, you'll explore the question, "Who Could I Be?'  and you'll identify some potential options. You'll then pick one of your options to work with throughout the rest of the course.  We'll also talk about the whole messy, muddy process of career re-invention and how to get through it without going crazy.
  • Week 2--EXPERIENCE--Experimenting with Possible Selves:  During this week you'll devise some experiments for beginning to try out and explore a new career identity. We learn best from experience, so we'll explore different ways that you can begin using experiments to learn more about what you do and don't want. This is Action Week!
  • Week 3--EXPAND--Networking and Building Up Experiences: During the 3rd week, you will continue implementing your experiments from Week 2. You will also expand your exposure to people and experiences that may be able to support your potential career vision. Another week of action, with some Reflection thrown in. 
  • Week 4--EVOLVE--Revising and Evolving Your Career Story: In the final week of the course, we will start to synthesize what you've learned and look at how it has impacted your career vision and the opportunitities you may want to explore. You'll also put together some next steps.  

Each Monday I will post the assignments for the week, along with a suggested daily schedule you can use to keep yourself on track. You'll have complete freedom to decide when and how you want to do your assignments. 

I will also host one or more "live" sessions each Monday. Depending on the number of people who sign up and their locations, I may do a few sessions scheduled at different times of the day.  I want to try to work with participants' schedules as much as I can. 

During the live sessions, I will introduce that week's topic and take you through some initial exercises to get you started. These sessions will be recorded and archived so that you are able to access them later to review. You'll also be able to watch the archived sessions if you were unable to attend that week's event. 

What Do I Get from All of This? 

By the end of the Career Clarity Camp you'll have:

  • Greater clarity about your career situation and goals. I can't promise that you'll have EVERYTHING figured out. But you will have learned a process that you can continue to use to further explore and expand your options.  
  • New habits and tools for managing your career on an ongoing basis.
  • Clear action steps to move you closer to your goals.
  • Connections to other Campers who are seeking their own clarity and who can help you in your journey to move forward. 

Why Should I Take This Camp with You?

I am a certified Career Development Facilitator Instructor with over 15 years of experience in working with people to help them figure out what they want to be when they grow up. I've also had extensive experience in running a variety of career workshops and retreats, so I have many tricks up my sleeve. 

I don't have all the answers--that's where you come in! But I can create the space and activities for you to explore where you want to go. Through this course, you'll have access to a really cool visualization tool--the VisualsSpeak Image Center--that can help you find insights you may be missing, plus some great activities.

And if past workshops are any indication, you'll be connecting with some really interesting, fun people, too. Working in a group is one of the best ways to find career clarity. Conversations with others can help you feel less isolated and give you ideas and insights you aren't able to find on your own--or even one-on-one with a career counselor or coach.  I've always been really pleased with the quality of the interactions and sharing in my courses. The participants are simply amazing!

What's My Investment?

Your investment in the Career Clarity Camp is:

  • $99 USD for a month of activities and Career Clarity resources, 4 weekly live events plus a bonus wrap-up session, access to the VisualsSpeak Image Center, and interactions with your fellow Career Clarity Campers. (NOTE--This is a special introductory price I'm offering for this first round. When I offer the course again, the price will be going up! ) And $99 is a great deal--that's about the price of a cup of coffee per day. Your professional development is worth $3 a day, isn't it? 
  • About 2.5 to 3.5 hours per week of your time for the activities and the weekly live events. 

I'm Convinced! How Do I Participate? 

You can register and pay for the camp here.

There's a form for you to complete to send me your basic information and then you can pay for the camp through that page as well. 

Within 24 hours of you submitting your registration, I will send you follow-up information about the course and some pre-work to do prior to when we begin. 

What If I Want More Information?

If you need more info before you make a final commitment, feel free to email me at michelemmartin(at)gmail.com. I'm happy to answer any questions! 


A 3-Step Process for Learning From the Depths

Deep Ocean Depths

I was contacted this morning about doing a presentation on an old post of mine, "On Becoming a More Reflective Individual Practitioner," so I re-read what I'd written back in 2008.

One paragraph I quoted in the post really stood out for me. It was written by Joy Amulya of the Center for Reflective Community Practice at MIT from her booklet entitled What Is Reflective Practice?

Certain kinds of experiences create particularly powerful opportunities for learning through reflection. Struggles provide a window into what is working and not working, and may often serve as effective tools for analyzing the true nature of a challenge we are facing. Some struggles embody a dilemma, which can provide a rich source of information about a clash between our values and our approach to getting something done. Reflecting on experiences of uncertainty helps shed light on areas where an approach to our work is not fully specified. 

The examples that Joy provides--learning from struggles, dilemma and uncertainties--are what I call "learning from the depths." This is learning that takes place when we are challenged to reach into our core and dig deeply into who we are and how we operate in the world. 

The problem with this kind of learning, though is that often we are so caught up in the negative feelings that can accompany those kinds of experiences that we lose track of ourselves and our potential to learn. Sometimes it's all we can do to just stay with the experience, let alone learn from it. But if we can discipline ourselves to choose reflection, the learning can be a powerful thing. 

A 3- Step Process for Learning from the Depths

What has been successful for me is to use the process I'm going to outline below. The reflective structure gives me a way to wrestle with my learning that feels positive and affirming. Time and again it's given me a way to transform what could have been a negative experience into something that propels my growth. 

1. Notice and Describe Your Experience

The first step in learning from the depths is to really notice and describe what you are experiencing. Ideally you are in a regular process of reflective practice so you have some way of recording things on a daily or at least weekly basis. Personally, I do Morning Pages every day.  

But even if you are not in a regular habit, you will at some point become aware of the fact that you are wrestling with something difficult. Possibly it's the challenge of a particular project and managing all of the moving pieces. Or it could be issues related to collaborating with colleagues or feeling a clash between your personal values and what you're doing at work. 

Regardless, to reflect on something, you must first notice it and then describe what you're experiencing in as much detail as possible. 

  • What is the situation?
  • Who's involved?
  • How long has it been going on?
  • What have you done? What have others done? How has this helped or hindered the situation? 
  • What feels challenging or problematic about it?
  • What are your emotional responses--do you feel frustrated, angry, sad, overwhelmed? 

I've found that it helps to be as concrete and detailed as possible. Not only does this give me more to work with, it also helps get rid of the toxic or difficult emotions I'm usually carrying around. Basically this step allows me to vent, so I can then move on to the next stage of processing and reflection. 

I'll be honest. There are times that I need to give myself some time to get through this first stage of just describing and staying with the experience, especially if strong emotions are involved. I have to get past the "vent" stage before I'm effective with Step 2. 

2. Get Clarity About Your Ideal Outcome(s) 

The next phase for me is to take a step back from the current situation and get clarity about the outcome I'm seeking. What is it that I want to occur? What is the goal I'm working toward? This helps me further refine my understanding of the situation or dilemma I'm in. It re-focuses me on what I'm hoping to achieve, rather than miring me in the struggle itself. 

Some questions I might ask myself include:

  • What do I really want in this situation? Why? What outcomes am I looking for? 
  • What would the ideal situation look like? At the conclusion of this situation, what would be the best thing I would hope happens? 
  • What am I focusing on here? Can I shift my focus to more of what I want? What would happen if I did? What does this tell me about the outcome I'm seeking? 
  • How will this situation impact me 6 months from now? A year from now? 5 years from now? Asking this question helps me better clarify for myself what is often a time-limited thing. That can help me learn to let go of things that might feel like a struggle, but really aren't in the whole scheme of things.  

Getting greater clarity about outcomes and the end result I want can either help me let go of something that isn't a big deal after all or it can help me move to the next stage. 

Also, if I'm unable to get real clarity here, I will often go back to Step 1 to do some more venting and exploration of the situation, especially if I've been remiss in keeping up with my reflective work. It tends to be less of a problem if I've been journaling daily because I'm more likely to have released my feelings and have greater clarity about what's going on. 

3. Reflect and Enact

Although technically you could divide this into two steps, I've found that for me, these are really intertwined. 

Once I've found clarity about the situation and the outcomes I'm seeking, I then really look at what it tells me about myself and how I might want to experiment with different behaviors or strategies for dealing with the situation. Some of the questions I ask myself at this stage include:

  • What can I learn from how I'm handling and responding to this situation? What does it tell me about myself?
  • What can I learn about how I'm REACTING to the situation, particularly my emotional reactions? Is this a situation that is possibly challenging some important beliefs or assumptions? What are those beliefs and assumptions?  Do I need to revise them?  
  • What patterns do I see? Is this something I've faced before? How did I handle it and how can I use that in this situation? What does this tell me about how I "typically" respond in these situations? Is there something I need to do to address this because it's more habitual than I realized
  • What do I see as one of the most significant changes I could make to change this situation and get me closer to my outcomes? What one change would have the greatest impact in helping me to achieve the outcome I'm looking for? What small change could I make right now that would align with this larger change I want to make? 

With these questions, I am able to dive more deeply into learning about myself, my core strengths, my weaknesses, the places where I need to pay better attention to what I'm doing and how I'm handling situations. When learning from the depths, I try to get a sense of the underlying issues, because often these are about my character traits or values clashing with the real world and something has to shift at a deeper level for me to effect change. 

The last question in the list is an "enacting" question that allows me to start thinking about ways I might shift the situation. I've found that making micro-movements in the direction of a change I'm seeking is far more effective than coming up with some 10 point plan. These smaller steps also give me a chance to "try on" new behaviors and to experiment with change in a way that feels more natural and is likely to last longer. 


This 3-step process is one I've used in both my personal and my professional life to find learning and growth even in the most challenging situations. It has provided me with much needed structure at times when I felt like I was floundering. It has also helped me find purpose in some toxic and painful situations. I return to it again and again and it always helps me pull treasure from the darkest experiences. 

The Power of Good Questions

Question mark made of puzzle pieces

I'm working on two online courses I'm planning for the fall (more on that coming soon) and thinking a lot about the power of questions in career and professional development. We think that development is about finding answers, but I would argue that it's largely about the questions we ask. 

There are three characteristics of good career questions. They should:

  • Be compelling and provocative. The best career questions drive you to learn more or try something different.They engage you at the level of your passions and what is important.  You'll know a "flat" question when you see it. It will bore you. Compelling questions encourage you to dive in and find answers. 
  • Lead you to new solutions and ideas. Often if you feel trapped in a situation, it's because you are asking yourself the wrong questions, questions that either keep leading you back to the problem with no solution in sight or questions that lead you to the same old solutions. This is why I believe so strongly in using positive questions to drive your career and professional development. They open up new ways of thinking and new possibilities. They help you build on what works and what you want more of, rather than focusing you on deficits and problems. 

Questions are what drive us to action and to new learning. Paying attention to the questions we ask ourselves and taking the time to construct for ourselves the RIGHT questions can be a powerful strategy for moving us forward and providing us with the energy we need for new insight and motivation. 

What questions are you asking yourself? Do they have these characteristics? 

Four Strategies for Combating Career Tunnel Vision


One of the things I've observed repeatedly is how stunned people are when they lose their jobs. Despite the fact that the writing has usually been on the wall for weeks or months, there is a palpable sense of disbelief--how could this happen to ME?!

I've found that this is generally a result of career tunnel vision, a condition that can plague all of us. Career tunnel vision comes about when we are isolated in our own workplaces, working in our particular department, head down, focusing on our specific job. We have little to no awareness of what may be going on outside of our little sphere.

Some of us may have greater awareness--we know what is happening in other departments or even have a decent picture of what's happening with the company as a whole. But so often, we are blind to the larger forces at work, outside of our organizations. We don't see new technologies on the rise and how they may influence our work. We fail to recognize the implications of a global marketplace and a global workforce. We do not see the trends in how workplaces operate and how these changes may impact what we do and how we do it. And it is this failure that can be our downfall. 

Positive Professional Development is partially about maintaining our focus on the bigger picture--what is happening beyond the boundaries of our particular job, department or organization? How will these trends impact my work? What is the intersection between the new opportunities that changes bring and my core strengths? 

Combating Career Tunnel Vision

How then to combat this tendency toward tunnel vision?

1. Widen your focus. Read articles and explore information from a wide array of sources, not just those specific to your industry or occupation. Deliberately expose yourself to a broader selection of information on technology, workplace trends and the global economy. Set up Google Alerts that will bring the information to you. Set aside time at least once a week to explore this information and see what you can learn and how it might impact your career goals. 

2. Connect to people who do NOT share your interests. I've written before about the problem of homophily--the fact that birds of a feather flock together and our need to combat this syndrome. Homophily, in part, is what caused the breakdown of our financial systems and the current state of our economy. Too many people in the same echo chamber leading to the most destructive form of groupthink imaginable.

To fight career tunnel vision, you must be deliberate in seeking out people and networks outside of the usual suspects. This will not happen naturally because as a species, we are prone to connect to our "tribe." But it is often those outside of our tribe who can bring us the information and ideas we need to reinvigorate what we do and how we do it. Seek out those who are different. They will give you perspectives and ideas that can transform your career. 

3. Ask the right questions. Learning and professional growth come from asking the right questions. Too often we get stuck in the questions that our industry or profession want answered, missing the larger questions that could change what we do and how we do it. We need to develop a regular questioning habit and a focus on finding the right questions to explore. Some ideas:

  • What changes are happening in the larger world around technology, people, networks and data? How might these impact what I do? 
  • What are the important questions in your industry or your line of work? Which of these important questions get you excited and passionate and filled with energy to learn more? 
  • Think about the shifts happening in your profession, your industry, your personal and professional life. Which of these shifts generates the most hope for you? Which of these nurtures your hope for building a better world and a more positive future? How could these ideas fuel your learning? How could you learn more that would help you take advantage of these changes? 
  • How do the changes I see intersect with my core strengths? What opportunities can I find that I hadn't considered before? How could I leverage my core strengths to take advantage of wider trends and changes? 

4. Continually re-examine your core strengths and interests. This last idea is somewhat counter-intuitive to the first three strategies. But the reality is that the clarity you need to fight career tunnel vision can only come when you take what you've learned about what's happening in the outside world and bring it back into yourself to examine how these trends intersect with your strengths. 

The only way to get true clarity about where to find your next opportunities is by reflecting on how you can tie trends to your core strengths. Otherwise you are just randomly chasing after ideas. It's critical that you return to yourself on a regular basis to see what it is you want to create in the world as this will give you the information you need to focus your efforts. 


It takes hard work and dedication to fight our tunnel vision. This is even more true in the world today where information overload causes us to seek ways to narrow our focus. Of course we must do this to make sense of all that comes into our over-worked brains, but we must do so strategically, not out of a sense of desparation or a desire to just shut out the noise. 

The effort WILL pay off though, when we develop regular habits that fight this tendency to narrow our vision. We will be better positioned to act from inspiration, not desperation and we will have greater control over our careers and what we accomplish. 

What experiences have you had with career tunnel vision? What strategies have you used to fight it? 

Six Positive Professional Development Strategies for the Toxic Workplace

Hazmat Suits

I'm finding that the combination of "doing more with less," and the morale fall-out of the recession is increasingly adding to the psychological burden that many of us deal with at work. We've always had bad bosses, ill-tempered co-workers and heavy work loads, but there's a special something in the air that I think makes things even more difficult than they've been. 

Over the weekend, I ran across a nice article in Psychology Today on how to deal with the Toxic Workplace. It got me thinking about how a Positive Professional Development approach can help us deal with a bad work environment. So here are six strategies for dealing with toxic work. 

1. Keep the Focus on You

As the Psychology Today article points out, it helps to start by keeping the focus on you and your responses to various situations. You can't control what other people do or say, but you can control how you respond. Recognizing this can be empowering and broaden the range of options for dealing with the situation that open themselves up to you. 

I also find that when you keep the focus on you, it's easier to treat your current situation as a learning experience. You can ask yourself on a regular basis, "How can I get the most out of this situation so that I can continue to build myself for the next opportunity I decide to pursue?" 

2. Reframe Your Experience

One of the most helpful things I've found in dealing with toxic situations is finding a way to reframe my experience. For me, Positive Professional Development is about finding ways to learn from what's happening to us, asking positive questions that can lead us to a different way of processing our lives. So if you're in a toxic work environment or are encountering a particular challenge, asking the right kinds of questions can help you re-frame things. Some possible questions to ask include:

  • What is good about this situation? What can I appreciate and focus on?
  • What am I focusing on in this situation and how can I focus on getting MORE of what I want, rather than less?
  • What do I believe is realistically possible in this situation? How can I broaden my beliefs to expand the possiblities? 
  • What learning is available to me in this situation? How can I be open to that learning and focusing on what I can learn rather than on the negatives? 
  • What small thing can I do to make the situation just a little easier or better?

This isn't to suggest that you should tolerate a bad situation forever, but sometimes asking these kinds of positive questions can help you begin to shift into a more positive frame of mind and, therefore, into more possibilities for dealing with the situation. 

3. Schedule Daily Debriefings for Yourself

This is another suggestion from the Psychology Today article that I think is tremendously helpful in shifting your focus for better problem-solving. 

Toxic workplaces, like toxic families, can give you a skewed sense of reality. You can begin to believe all the negative feedback and stories you may be receiving about yourself and your work. One way to use your daily debriefing time is to do periodic "reality checks," checking in with yourself to remind yourself of your positive qualities and attributes. This may sound hokey, but it really is necessary to counter-balance the impact that negative feedback can have on your psyche. If possible, find a co-worker to do this with--maybe you can take turns reminding each other of what makes each of you awesome. 

You can also use your daily debriefings to focus on what you may have learned that day. Did you have an opportunity to try out some new communication skills on people? What happened? Did you learn some new skill or piece of information? If you use your daily debrief time to focus on the positives you may be getting from the situation, this can help you focus more on growth, rather than on feeling demoralized. 

4. Seek the Growth Mindset

I've written before about the importance of cultivating the growth mindset over the fixed mindset. Sometimes our "toxic workplace" is something that we are creating ourselves--or at least contributing to by being in a "fixed" mindset where we are reluctant to grow and learn. Further, toxic workplaces often nurture and encourage the fixed mindset, making it even more likely that we're trapped in a cycle of stagnation. By nurturing in ourselves the growth approach, where we seek daily to be open to learning, we can sometimes address some of the worst characteristics of our toxic work. 

5. Focus on What You Want MORE Of in Your Work Life

Negativity can fuel more negativity. Often when we are thinking about a toxic work environment, we will focus on what we want less of--less complaining or less negative feedback, for example. This, in turn, has us focused on all the times that we are seeing complaining and negative feedback. But if we try to get clarity about what we want MORE of in our work--for example, more positive feedback--then we can go looking for that. And we may find that there's more of it than we realized. We can also focus on providing more positive feedback to others ourselves, which, in turn, can create a more positive workplace. 

6. Engage in Strategic Action

The first item on this list of strategies was to keep the focus on you. In this strategy, I'm going to bring it back around. You can't control what others say or do. You can only control your own responses and actions. Try strategically acting in ways that support more of the behaviors you'd like to see at work. If nothing else, see if you can focus on improving your life in some small ways. This article on 60 Small Ways to Improve Your Life in 100 Days might be helpful. You may also get some ideas from this article


Again, I want to reiterate that I am NOT advocating that we stay in toxic work situations and just try to put a happy face on them. But I am aware that, for a variety of reasons, we may find ourselves in negative work environments for much longer than we'd like to be, so finding ways to cope is critical. 

By focusing on using your negative situation as a positive opportunity for growth, you may be able to make more of your toxic workplace--or at least make it more bearable. 

Have you had to deal with a toxic work environment? What strategies did you use to get you through it? 

Career Simplicity--Paring Down to the Essentials


We live in a complicated world, getting more complex all the time. I've come to believe that our best--really our ONLY--strategy for dealing with this on an individual basis is to look for career simplicity. How do we pare things down to the essentials so that we're able to focus and build on what really counts? 

Beth Kanter had a great blog post a few years ago about the need for organizations to adopt a policy of simplicity in dealing with social media. I think this same strategy is necessary for our own career development. For Beth, simplicity boils down to:

  1. Identify the essential.
  2. Network the rest. 

I think that these two ideas can also be used in our careers. 

1. Identify the Essential

We start with ourselves. What are our core strengths and talents? When we are operating at our very best, doing the things that we feel passionate about and that feed our growth, what are we doing? What is our essential core? 

We can't all be great at everything, so why bother? It's worth figuring out where and how we truly shine. Then we start looking for ways to build on those essentials, making ourselves even more amazing in those areas. 

This means, of course, also having to let go of those things at which we are "good enough," but not great. It also means letting go of those activities that are meant to build up our "good enough" qualities. It's about identifying our chief assets and then doing what we can to build on and utilize those. 

It's about understanding those essential strengths and looking at where they intersect with the opportunities before us. 

2. Network the rest.

One person's greatest weakness is another person's greatest gift. Instead of constantly finding ways to shore up our weaknesses, how can we connect with others who may be able to complement us in the places where we are not strong? What networks can we form? How can we work with others who are focused on their own essential strengths so that we can do things that are even more amazing? 

 We live in a world where many of the "best" jobs are about adding value in new and innovative ways. The only way we can truly add value, though, is if we focus on those parts of ourselves that are the most valuable--knowing our essential strengths and building a career based on those. Paring down to the essentials may be our best strategy for thriving in an ever more complex world.